Rising Stars 2019

Meet some of the faces poised to shape the future of meetings.

Welcome to M&C’s fourth annual portfolio of dynamic professionals poised to make their mark in the meetings world. These 15 women and men put their keen intelligence, boundless passion and hopeful vision for the future to work for our industry.

Nadya Okamoto
Founder and Speaker

Don’t be shocked that our youngest entrant this year at 20 has decided to put her Harvard University education on hold. Nadya Okamoto, who in her teens founded Period — an organization that seeks to change how people talk about menstruation and delivers Period Packs to women in need — is now on the road speaking most of the time, while continuing to work as an activist and organizer.

For a short time in high school, Okamoto’s family lived without a home of their own, which gave life to her mission. “While I was speaking with homeless women who were in much worse living situations, I made sure to listen carefully and collected stories to figure out what they actually needed,” says Okamoto, who wowed attendees in January at the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders conference. “I love that every time I give a speech or pitch what we do, I am breaking down the stigma around menstruation a little more.”

That Harvard education might be on permanent hold, as Okamoto’s event schedule fills up and her menu of topics expands. “I’m not sure where I’ll be five years from now,” she confesses. “I’m learning to be okay with that and to focus on the impact I’m trying to make now.”


Erin Abel
Owner, Chief Experience Officer
Third Coast Events 

At 27, Erin Abel has already become her own boss, and her sole employee, as well, having started the Grand Rapids, Mich.–based third-party-planning company Third Coast Events last September. “I’ve taken on five clients in the past five months,” she notes, “and I love  it.” 

Abel says planning is a natural outgrowth of her type-A personality. “I was always very organized,” she says, “and by high school I figured I’d become a wedding planner.” After attending a hospitality program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., she planned conferences for nonprofits in education, one highlight of which was running a science expo at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. “We had 3,000 attendees — teachers, parents and students — and guest stars like Shaesta Waiz, a refugee from Afghanistan who became the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft.” 

The inspiration from such achievements helps nurse Abel’s dreams for Third Coast Events. “My goal is to get into the sustainable-environment side of things and plan sustainable or zero-waste events,” she says. “If enough meetings and events follow such practices, it can have a real positive impact on the planet just a few years from now.”

Kim Cowperthwaite, CMP
Manager of Programs and Events
New Jersey Business & Industry Association

"I am a proud Jersey girl," asserts Kim Cowperthwait, who was born in Trenton, N.J., and today oversees more than 70 events per year at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. Her job is a far cry from her childhood dream of becoming either a paralegal or interior designer — not your usual adolescent goals. But like many in the industry, she "fell into it" right out of college when, armed with a degree in marketing, she began running dinner meetings for pharmaceutical companies. Cowperthwait, 42, joined the NJBIA in 2015 as program coordinator and was promoted to her current role last August.

The association provides information and services to its member companies and is considered a major advocate for business in the Garden State. Events under Cowperthwait's purview include educational seminars, awards programs, policy events with legislators and golf outings. "Our largest gathering is our annual Women Business Leaders Forum, which attracts over 500 of our state's top professional women and men," she notes.

Some favorite aspects of her job include contract negotiations, logistics and return on investment — for meeting-goers: "I believe planners need to be more strategic about offering ROI to attendees, whether providing hands-on activities to adult learners or including a give-back element for Millennials."

Married to a police officer and mother to two teenagers, Cowperthwait says her latest dream job is "to go on tour with New Kids on the Block and be part of their logistics team. I am a 'Blockhead' for life!"


Sarah Soliman Daudin, DES 
President and CEO
Soliman Productions 

“I really appreciate the long-term relationships that stem from face-to-face meetings,” says Sarah Soliman Daudin. “I have met lifelong friends, and it’s those relationships that drive me to want to share the unique experiences and true value of the meeting and event space through video.”

In creating Soliman Productions about four years ago, however, Daudin, 31, also drew on her background in journalism and the realization that the MICE industry was thirsty for creative video content and livestreaming to enhance the attendee experience, promote events and showcase sponsors.

“I wanted to develop my brand in my own way and provide opportunities for other creatives to flourish in a relaxed environment,” she says. Her team has grown to eight full-time employees and has helped numerous associations, including Meeting Professionals International, to elevate their video content. Along the way, the company has expanded its headquarters in Orlando and plans to open an office in Las Vegas.  

Daudin serves on Meeting Professionals International’s Global Board of Trustees and is co-chair of the MPI Women’s Advisory Board. While she likes to tout the level of service her company provides, she notes, “People trust us, and that’s what I am most proud of.”


Philip Eidsvold, CIS, CITP
Vice President, Client Services 

At 41, Philip Eidsvold is 20 years older than our youngest honoree this year, but at the same time, as president of the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, he is one of the youngest board chairs of an industry association ever.

A fluency in French cultivated during his junior year abroad from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minneapolis brought Eidsvold to the city’s One10, a marketing and events management firm, where he specializes in incentives. He was just promoted to vice president this past December. 

Reached in Bangkok, where he was preparing for the SITE Global Conference last month, Eidsvold noted that he’s been on that organization’s board for seven years. “We have a very ambitious platform to continue to build on record-breaking membership numbers, establishing new chapters, growing educational offerings and building on the success of our Certification for Incentive Travel Professionals,” he says. 

Back home, Eidsvold also sits on the boards of two local nonprofit fine-arts organizations; to relax, he does yoga and enjoys time with his partner and their golden retriever in their lake house.

Lindsay Graham, CIS
Account Manager

Growing up in tiny Newtown, Pa., Lindsay Graham, 35, dreamed of a TV career. Instead, after learning about the meetings world from a cousin who was a planner for a financial firm, she interned with the events department at West Virginia University while attending school there, earned her diploma and took a job with the Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, and followed that with seven years at Maritz Travel.

Working from her Philadelphia-area home for San Diego-based Cadence, a meetings and incentive travel firm, since 2017, Graham has honed her ability to service her client base, even implementing a strategic meetings management program for one of them.  

Graham, who recently ran off to Italy with her husband to enjoy a delayed honeymoon, is looking to grow her stable of clients for the near future. She still keeps her hand in the planning game, such as the back-to-back, 800-person incentive trips for one of Cadence's largest clients that Graham ran in spring 2018, one of which had to be moved from Puerto Rico to San Diego in the wake of Hurricane Maria.


Emily Gravolet
Manager, Strategic Accounts

As a manager for Cvent’s customer-success team, Emily Gravolet, 32, influences how the meeting management firm’s clients use the company’s online platform for sourcing, online registration, event mobile apps, on-site check-in and beyond. That means partnering with clients to find ways to address their needs, whatever they may be.

Cvent was Gravolet’s first job out of college after she had gotten a taste for the MICE industry while studying at the University of Virginia, serving as a public-programs intern for a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit. “It really opened my eyes to the value of face-to-face meetings,” she says.

She initially worked in client services with Cvent before moving to her present role, where Gravolet has spent the past five years strategically managing events for the company’s enterprise clients. She directs a team of eight “customer-success managers,” tracking the pulse of the industry and how the organization can meet clients’ needs with its products. This position has given her a broader view of the MICE industry, she says, and how the feedback from stakeholders and attendees pushes the meetings envelope in terms of content and attendee experience.

Along the way, she has benefited from Cvent’s Women in Leadership mentorship program, applying what she’s learned to her own work. As payback, she plans to offer her own guidance as a mentor soon. 


Anna Hess
Client Services Coordinator, Account Manager
Summit Chicago

While managing a bar during her college years, Anna Hess got the chance to plan some parties. A spark was lit, leading to a stint as manager and assistant event coordinator at a restaurant in Minneapolis. She next took on a catering-manager role for a wedding-planning company and wound up working with all of their vendors. 

Today, the 24-year-old manages client accounts at the Summit Chicago (“the only Chicago meeting venue accredited by IACC,” Hess notes), handling everything from managing special events to designing marketing campaigns.

“I actually thrive on solving problems, last-minute fixes, being at the center of our team,” she says. “I love bringing in cool vendors, sharing our experiences on social media — all the stuff we Millennials are good at!”

Hess’ F&B background has led her to become IACC’s chair for dietary guidelines, where she recently played a major role in developing the Guide to Managing Conference Delegate Dietary Requirements, a plan to help event professionals manage partnerships and work with venues to create appropriate menus. “Among our findings was that 79 percent of planners now receive more dietary requests compared to just two years ago,” she says, “yet only 33 percent of venues include basic nutritional information on their menus.” 


Kimberly Hoffman, CMP, DMCP
Director of Event Services 
Accent Indy, a DMC Network Company 

Although Kimberly Hoffman went to Ball State University in Indiana to pursue a degree in athletic training, she wound up taking classes in event and food management, volunteered for local organizations and began work at Indianapolis' Accent Indy, a destination management company, in 2011. 

More than seven years later, Hoffman has worked her way up to director of events services. "I love selling and operating programs in a city that has so much to offer," she says. "It's been fun to see the city grow, and there's always something exciting in the pipeline."

The job has even allowed her to revisit her athletic roots by working on programs around events like the Super Bowl and the annual Indy 500 race. Along the way she's earned her CMP and DMCP, and last spring became a Registered Yoga Teacher. 

Hoffman loves the structure at Accent Indy. "While most DMCs have a sales team and an operations team, our planners all sell and service events, which really allows us to build relationships with our clients."

Fidel Mitchell, CMP 
Convention Services Manager
Arlington (Texas) Convention & Visitors Bureau

“I think I have the best job in the world,” says Fidel Mitchell, 26, of her post with the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Antigua native, who calls herself the “Siri of Arlington,” notes that “I’m the person you call when you’re trying to figure out what to do, whether you’re bringing in 10 people or 10,000. I know how to plan your best meeting in my city.”

Mitchell calls her job a marriage between events and tourism. She found out early that the meetings world was her home, planning events for the Caribbean students’ group at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, and working at the Wichita Falls CVB before joining Arlington three years ago. 

Today, Mitchell is setting global goals for her future: “Someday I’d like to be creating tourism policies around the world. I’m not sure how I’m going to get there, but I’d like to work for the United Nations.”

Downtime is spent with her black lab in Arlington’s River Legacy Park. “I talk to so many people for my job, and have to be sociable and personable, so when I relax it’s just me and my dog,” Mitchell says. “Depending on the time of day, you might encounter a bobcat or two.”


Zoe Moore
Founder, CEO
LB Alliance/Cultivate Event Artistry & Design

Zoe Moore, 38, came to the meetings game later than most, after being honorably discharged from the Army in 2013. Figuring out what to do next took her to California State University East Bay to get a master’s degree in hospitality management. Attending a gathering of MPI’s Northern California Chapter inspired her to start her two businesses in 2016.

Cultivate Event Artistry & Design allows me to operate independently as an event planner, photographer and consultant,” notes Moore, “while the LB Alliance is a platform for advocating and supporting under represented professionals in the meetings industry.”

When first reached by M&C in January, Moore was on a business trip to South Africa. While her events take her far afield, some of her best work is being done locally as head of MPI NCC’s inclusion and diversity committee. “We plan to implement measurable changes in the way we recruit, retain and conduct business,” Moore says. “There are systemic issues that have to be addressed at their core. As the saying goes, when inclusion is the behavior, then diversity will be the result.”


Greg Morris, CMP
Director of Meetings and Education 
Destinations International

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in theater and media studies at the University of Virginia, Greg Morris started working for a conference center, which would later turn into a full-time, post-grad role. He later became the assistant director of meetings and events at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, where he was involved in planning their annual conference. 

As director of meetings and education at Destinations International, Morris is responsible for the execution of their education programs, conferences and events. “I get to be a thought leader in the industry,” he says. It doesn’t hurt that he has earned his CMP and completed the event management professional certificate program at George Washington University School of Business. Most recently, he was made a member of PCMA’s “20 in Their Twenties” class of 2019. 

“I don’t know what that looks like yet,” Morris says about how he sees his future, “but I definitely want to be involved in the meetings and events industry in a C-suite-level position.” 


Kate Page, CMP 
Director of Services 
Fenway Park Events, Boston, Red Sox  

Boston's Fenway Park is not just a great place to see a game. The iconic ballpark also offers top-notch facilities for meetings and events of from 20 to 20,000 attendees, and Kate Page, 32, has the job of ensuring these gatherings go off without a hitch. With the stadium for 10 years, beginning in ticket services, she now is responsible for the day-to-day operations of event services, including overseeing the team of service managers and ensuring clients are well cared for. She manages events of all kinds throughout the year, including high-profile fetes such as the 2018 World Series Gala, which took place the day before World Series Game 1 last October. 

Things are likely to get more interesting for her in the coming years: Fenway Sports Group is now exploring the development of a performing arts center adjacent to the stadium, offering a 5,000-capacity theatre and a 500-capacity function space.

"Our business is so special because it transcends all industries, and they are not simply meetings or events, they are experiences, and they impact all walks of life," Page says. "I am so happy to be a part of making those experiences come to life."


Alex Plaxen, MTA 
President, Founder
Little Bird Told Media

Setting out to provide social media expertise for the meetings world, Alex Plaxen, 32, founded Little Bird Told Media in 2016. At first, he says, "I thought most of my work would be long-term social media management work for meetings and conventions. What I quickly realized was that the industry needed more education about how we can use social media in different ways."

While Plaxen has since pivoted to focusing more on consulting and training than implementation, his holds to the idea that social media is a tool, not a strategy. And it's a tool that he notes can be used for more than marketing, including sponsorships, attendee engagement, data analysis and more. 

Branching further out, Plaxen recently worked with Meeting Professionals International to develop a certificate course in crisis communications for meetings and conventions, and collaborated with Aventri on a study that found only 38 percent of meeting planners use social media for crisis management. He's currently working on a book about the topic. 

"The work I do allows me to tell a meeting's story and connect people through shared experiences," says Plaxen. "For me, that's the greatest part about this industry and working in digital communications." 


Andrew Swanston
Head of Sales, Conferences and Events 
ExCeL London

Since joining the team at the mammoth ExCeL London venue in 2007 as an account manager for conferences and events, Andrew Swanston has steadily taken on new responsibilities and risen to the head of sales. He now promotes ExCeL and its home city to North America while managing the sales staff for the busy venue, which welcomes more than 4 million guests annually and hosts more than 400 events. During his tenure, major happenings like the G20 and 2012 Olympics have taken place at the facility. 

“Events are a driving force for commerce and trade and are still one of the most effective ways of raising global brand awareness,” says Swanston, 40. “Events provide the best opportunity to make new connections, forge meaningful relationships, and to learn about and experience new products and services.” 

In addition to his work with ExCeL, Swanston takes part in PCMA’s task force of European event planners. In the near future, he’s looking forward to the opening of the Elizabeth rail line in London, which will have a stop right at his facility. “It will provide an ‘Events Super Highway’ linking the world’s busiest airport at Heathrow to ExCeL in 43 minutes,” he enthuses.